On the final day of our six month project at The Photographers’ Gallery, right at the end of our final group recording a young woman who I had never met before grabs my arm and says ”Is that it? (Angry eye popping pause) I want my money back”.
Rather than saying what first came into my mind (Get in line sister I feel that way about life) for the first time during our Thinkers in Residence project I was unable to find any words. Stunned by the spite, and poleaxed by the profundity of what she had just said.
It’s probably predictable that when you run a project that audaciously invites people into a public space to say what’s on their mind an attempt will be made in last few minutes to hijack the love and generosity of the people involved. Sometimes this involves what can only be described as a psychic dump and run – when someone decides to try to, well, shit on it.
Free Association? How very dare you.
To be fair to this woman, she may have had a point. Generally when an institution asks you what you think, they don’t actually mean it. There is something slippery about setting up a project in the The Photographers’ Gallery, made up of the designed stuff of Thinker in Residence badges, a Thought Creche, a beautiful website and good coffee. Asking people what they actually think in this warm-bath institutional setting could be precisely the opposite of an authentic question – a kind of psychic slight of hand that people have become increasingly resentful of.
In the real world of 2016 if you’re going to open up a psychic Thought Creche you have to be prepared to take some shit. Seriously.
To save us from our delusions and fantasies, during the Thinkers in Residence project Brexit happened. What followed was six months of conversations about racism, migration, politics and despair mixed in with stories of dads and jobs, a London now passed and the people we love.
During the run up to the referendum the gallery had four bodies of work, finalists for the Deutsch bank prize. All were explicitly political including works by Tobias Zelony on African refugees in Germany, Laura El-Tantawy on the Arab Spring in Egypt, Trevor Paglin on state surveillance and Erik Kassel’s installation of a car representing a story about his relationship with his father. After Brexit the exhibitions changed to a Terence Donovan retrospective of his fashion and editorial work and a mixed show about black ‘dandies’ – Look at Me.
I’ll be honest now. I had difficulties with most of this work. At the start I only loved one piece of work – a video of Freud and his best mate Emanuel Lowy talking without sound, the artist Pierre Bismuth tracing the unconscious movement of Freud’s right hand. This piece was part of a beautiful exhibition of drawings and photographs, a quiet and reflective curation that really got my heart and mind going. How lovely to be reassured that the father of psychoanalysis wasn’t a complete fraud and really did like to talk to his bezzie.
The rest of the artwork on show during the project I had to be talked into having a relationship with. Throughout the six months I developed a deep relationship with the space and its exhibitions – persuaded by what other people saw, rather than what I immediately could. What I learned through these interactions turned out to be a journey of 180 degrees. Let me explain.
Despite spending most of my working life in the company of activists I can honestly say I have never had such politicised and transformative conversations as those I had in an art gallery with people I’d never met before. Literally the best conversation I’ve ever had about neo-liberalism was held while looking at a Donovan picture of Cindy Crawford and talking about the emergence of supermodels. Actually true.
This might be the paradox of art spaces like The Photographers’ Gallery – a white-walled institutional space both provocatively bland and containing at the same time. A safe and reliable space for my mind to wonder while at the same time an inadequate parental space, out of touch with the post-internet age. Unresponsive to the changing art landscape now the money has run out and the subsequent hostility we all hold towards our conservative and contracting institutions. I felt anger at the attempts to popularise the work, but at the same time a genuine affection for this space called art that allowed me to say whatever was on my mind. A child-like love n hate, I found myself slamming doors and spending much of my time sulking in the toilets.
There is also something about talking to random strangers that allows ‘expertise’ to be wrestled out of the hands of experts. This isn’t to say there aren’t people who know more about some things than others – but by being open to what anyone has to say, and to really give the time to hear them, you always learn something including how to change your view. and can feel differently about what you see. I have been changed by listening to Greek teenagers talking about images of refugees and stories of boys-done-good who grew up in the 50s in Soho. The activists who confirmed a growing realisation this summer that we don’t have the leaders we deserve. The photographers and psychotherapists who continue to open themselves up to working through and finding meaning despite the dismal professional returns.
The surprises and paradoxes that came out in these conversations happen when our environments don’t reflect our realities – our minds start to work to fill in the gaps. Despite the populist pap we’re getting force fed in our culture the fact remains that we’re pretty smart and when representations of reality directly contradict our own experiences we get to work. It’s at this point that things turn 180 degrees and ideas and meanings get turned on their heads. Genuine transformational learning.
In a way it’s both ambitious and silly to run a project aimed to promote human contact. The uncomfortable act of talking to someone else and genuinely being open to what they have to say remains a real struggle for all of us. Easier to retreat or withdraw than actually allow ourselves to be changed by other people. The actual difficulties we all experience in doing this means I’m not embarrassed that we asked people to wear ‘Thinker’ badges to identify themselves as people with thoughts open to other’s thoughts. I think some badges should be worn with pride.
Despite the risk of being pretentious by actually talking out loud about psychoanalysis and photography, once we started to do it the act of exchange made a lot more sense. As with all of the things we create – they only ever come out of an intercourse with life and to do that we have to step outside of our self-contained spaces. As with sex, if you picture yourself doing it you go right off the idea. Better to just to get on with it.
What came out of Thinkers in Residence is not the perfect baby. It is a real Body of Work that could not have existed without each of us. In answer to the question “is that it?” Yes, it definitely is. We are all we’ve got.
To see the project archive click A Body of Work.
The eBook includes contributions from Jason Evans, Marie Adams, Sally Weintrobe, Steve Fuller, David Morgan, Marianna Fotaki, Jonny Briggs, Del Loewenthal, Angela Eden, Oliver Whitehead and me.
To download the eBook click HERE.
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